Empire Aviation - Learn To Fly
Instructors Corner

articles and news from empire aviation’s flight instructors

Flight School

obtain a pilot’s license, advance rating or take a discovery flight


Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Piper Cherokee

Solos & Checkrides

students from empire aviation’s flight school

Henderson-Oxford Airport

KHNZ in Oxford, NC is the ideal setting for flying lessons

Print This Page
Home » John E. McLain

Instructor’s Manual: Are you really proficient?

By John E. McLain (May 2002)

As a pilot you have just completed a certification flight test, proficiency training, biennial flight review or evaluation by your favorite flight instructor and have been certified or declared proficient as a pilot.

This process included many maneuvers and operations. Unfortunately, many were done under simulated conditions.

For instance, you may have demonstrated a short field landing at your home airport, which has good approaches and a 4,000 foot runway.

Your techniques, as demonstrated, were beyond reproach. Are you now prepared to fly into a grass strip with 2,500 feet of runway and 50-foot trees at both ends? No.

You may have mastered many flight operations under simulated conditions but should not try them under actual conditions until they have been practiced under actual conditions.

Short field takeoffs and landings are among these. All the simulated practice in the world cannot prepare you for the real thing. If you intend to fly where your short field technique must be put to use, get some actual practice first with an instructor who has experience in actual short field landings.

Once you have located such an instructor, I am certain that he will know of some short runways where you can learn to apply your short field techniques.

Book learning is another instance where a pilot may know theory but, unless the theory is applied under the guidance of a qualified instructor, is not prepared to use it.

I know of a recent instance where a reasonably experienced pilot crashed while viewing some property in mountainous terrain on a very windy day. He certainly had some knowledge of density altitude, mountain waves, and other factors involved in mountain flying. But he had no experience, and the result was disastrous.

All pilots are required to know the significance of density altitude in airport operations, but all the book learning in the world will be of little use without experience under the eye of a qualified instructor. Time and time again, we read of accidents occurring on hot summer days to pilots operating out of small airports where they had flown on cold winter days with no problem.

Practice under simulated conditions only half prepares you for these operations. You must experience it to become proficient, and trying to gain this experience on your own is not advisable.

I have mentioned several times “experienced instructor.” Just what does this mean? Would any pilot with experience in these types of operations be just as good? The experienced pilot probably would be better than the inexperienced instructor in these instances, but it is best if he is an experienced instructor.

The instructor has the experience to recognize subtle student errors that could generate serious errors. In addition, his training makes it possible to anticipate problems before they occur.

Perhaps a personal experience can explain this better. Several years ago, a flight school in my area decided to offer seaplane instruction. In the past, I had accumulated close to 600 hours of seaplane flying in upstate New York and Alaska, flying bush operations. I agreed to help this school get started and train some of its instructors. After an hour or so in the airplane, brushing up on my sea techniques, I took on my first student. Now, there is no specific training required to become a sea instructor. If you have a single engine rating on your instructor certificate and a single engine sea rating on your pilot certificate, you are a single engine sea instructor.

My previous seaplane experience had involved no instruction. Initially, I had no trouble just teaching the basics. However, when I got into more advanced maneuvers such as lake takeoffs, high-speed taxi turns and smooth water landings, I found myself in trouble.

Never having done any seaplane instructing, I had not prepared myself for the way students could get into trouble, much less learned how to anticipate problems. The result was several interesting situations in which I fought for survival rather than taught. It reminded me quickly that experience does not necessarily mean you can instruct. It takes situational experience and instructional experience to do it right, so find a qualified instructor to work with on what I discuss here.

Flying VFR in marginal conditions is another area that really requires some experience. Your license gives you the privilege to operate basic VFR in three miles visibility while remaining 1,000 feet above clouds, 500 feet below them and 2,000 feet horizontally from them.

But operating within these bare minimums presents many problems, such as lack of a good horizon reference, judging visibility, and even seeing clouds. A cross-country flight in three miles visibility is not for the inexperienced. Make one or two with an experienced instructor before you try it yourself.

In this respect, I advise every pilot who is not instrument rated to make an IFR trip with a qualified instructor to actually experience flight in clouds.

Now for you instrument rated pilots. If, in your training, you have never experienced actual instrument conditions, don’t try it alone your first time. I have been with several instrument rated pilots when they experienced their first actual instrument conditions.

This may be hard to believe, but almost half lost control of the airplane within their first three minutes in the clouds.

I also suggest that instrument rated pilots who have not flown at least three hours of actual instruments in the past year should reacquaint themselves with actual instrument flight — again under the tutelage of an instructor.

To me, there is no bigger thrill in flying than to fly a precision instrument approach in IFR conditions, to minimums, and to see the approach lights.

However, this is not something you should do the first time by yourself. The visual cues are not what you would expect.

Pick a day when the weather is down to low IFR, find your favorite instrument instructor, and file a short round robin trip that will include at least three low precision and non-precision approaches. After that, you may have different thoughts about flying them by yourself, but at least you will have experienced them.

We all spend time in our instrument training on partial panel procedures, but how many have done it in actual instrument conditions?

Again, I suggest that you get together with a qualified instructor and fly a short trip from beginning to end on partial panel.

This is not dangerous, since the full panel is readily available, but the experience will be invaluable.

I have not attempted here to address all the situations where practice under simulated conditions does not prepare you for the real thing.

I just hope the reader will recognize the potential problems and take appropriate steps before stepping into the unknown.